Saturday, May 26, 2012

Publishing #4: Font Size, Margins, and the Benefits of Lower Page Count

Pull out your Dungeon Masters Guide – the 1e version – and flip to the Introduction on page 9. Can you read that text comfortably? The page contains more than 1500 words using a 6 point Futura font (or thereabouts), yet it's still quite readable. Admittedly, the DMG has tiny margins, and the font size could cause problems for a small handful of readers, so consider some more typical examples:

D&D Basic (Moldvay edit), p. B29: over 1100 words
D&D Basic (Holmes edit), p. 5: around 1000 words
B2 The Keep on the Borderlands, p. 2: over 1200 words
S4 Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, p. 13: over 1200 words
XL1 Quest for the Heartstone, p. 8: over 1100 words
Dragon Magazine #100, p. 12: about 1200 words

… and the list goes on. TSR-era Dungeon Magazine, OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, Middle-earth Role Playing (Iron Crown Enterprises), Stormbringer (Chaosium), Villains and Vigilantes (FGU), Lord of the Rings RPG (Decipher), Castles & Crusades (Troll Lord Games), and many other products both old and new use small fonts and/or tight margins in order to fit at least 1000-1200 words on dense pages of text. Even the Lamentations of the Flame Princess modules, which are A5 format (approximately digest size), manage to fit 900 words on full pages!

If your product fits less than 1000 words on its full pages of text, then your product wastes space, paper and money!

Consider the following comparision...

On the left: The aforementioned Introduction page from the DMG, containing more than 1500 words. On the right: Page 22 from DF27 Red Tam's Bones (a Dragonsfoot module), which fits only 600 words on its dense pages of text!

Side-by-side with the DMG, the enormous font and expansive margins of Red Tam's Bones gives the appearance of an early-reader's book!

Red Tam's Bones contains 53 interior pages. Does it seem reasonable to print out 53 pages for a module with about the same word count as a vintage TSR module? I don't think so. If Red Tam's Bones used appropriate font sizes & margins, it could have easily fit into the 32 page module format used by TSR.

Goal: 1200+ words on the dense pages

While a 1000+ words goal is acceptable, 1200+ words is better. 1000 words is actually the low end for typical products. As exemplified by the DMG, 1500+ words is not uncommon. Shoot for the middle of that range to get a comfortable result.

Does a product need 1000-1200 words on every page? No, of course not; illustrations and gaps between paragraphs limit the potential word count on many pages. And of course, if your physical product is smaller than 8.5" x 11", adjust the goal accordingly. But if your font & margin choices don't allow at least 1000-1200 words to fit on an 8.5" x 11", no-artwork, dense page of text, then you're wasting resources.

Admittedly, the examples above all use fairly minimalist visual designs. If you want to use a more elegant, elaborate design, go for it! Feel free to add border images, embellishments, headers, footers, or other design flourishes. Even with those niceties, you can still choose fonts, sizes, and margins that can fit 1000+ words on a full page.

Use 8 or 9 point fonts and 1/2-inch margins

Please don't blindly accept your word processor's (or layout program's) default font, size and margin when you create a new file for layout. Many word processors default to a 12 point font and 1-inch margins. Instead, crank your main body text down to 8 or 9 point, or smaller if the font is still readable. Consider 1/2-inch margins. For professionally printed products (including print-on-demand), the margin can even be smaller, because the presses used by professional print houses don't have the same sort of minimum margin requirements that home printers have.

Of course, not all of your text needs to be 8 or 9 point. Headers and titles should use larger point sizes, as should any main body font that's physically smaller than its point size suggests. Similarly, you might have good reason to use larger margins on one or more edges. For exampe, F3 Many Gates of the Gann uses a 0.63-inch margin on the outer edge to provide a bit of extra room for notes, but still uses 0.5-inch margins on the top, bottom and inside edges.

To determine whether you chose good font sizes & margins, print out a test page and compare it side-by-side with a number of professional gaming products. If your body text is about the same size, you're on the right track. Otherwise, keep adjusting and comparing until you have a good result.

Advantages of lower page count

By making good font size & margin choices, you reduce the final page count of your product. As mentioned by the Writing Style Tips article, you can also reduce the final page count by trimming some of the "verbal fat" from your manuscript – perhaps as many as 10-20% of the words. All of this page count reduction benefits publishers and/or consumers in several ways:

Lower printing cost. Whether the product is destined to be printed at home, at a professional print house, or via a print-on-demand service, fewer pages costs less to print than more pages.

Lower shipping cost. Fewer pages means lower weight, and shipping costs are often computed by weight.

Lower art cost. Fewer pages generally means fewer illustrations to commission.

Ease of layout. Layout problems are less frequent, and easier to solve when chunks of text (that need to be all one one spread/page/column) are physically smaller. (More on this in a later article.)

Better-looking full justification. Smaller font sizes & margins give you more words per line. Higher word-per-line counts make full justification work out better.

The first three benefits translate directly to cash-in-hand. Either the consumer receives the product for a lower price (compared to the same gaming content laid out in a suboptimal way), and/or the publisher keeps more profit. Both are fine with me. As a consumer, I'm paying for content, not page count. I'll happily pay $12 for a 20000 word module in 28 pages. If the publisher wants to save himself some production costs and squeeze the same content into 20 pages, I'll still happily pay $12, thus putting more money into the publisher's pocket. But I don't want to pay $20 for the same content just because the publisher used big fonts & margins and ended up with a 56 page result.

Part 5 in the series covers Visual Design Tidbits.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Publishing #3: Editing

"Editing" represents a variety of tasks that serve slightly different purposes. Some of these tasks ought to be the author's responsibility. Some are best performed by a person other than the author. In a couple cases, the author and editor collaborate to complete a particular editing task. When you work with an editor to improve your manuscript, tell the editor specifically what sort of help you want at the moment; don't make the editor guess, otherwise he might waste his time proofreading, when you really want a peer review. Of course, if the author doesn't make his needs explicit, the editor ought to ask.

Review (collaborative)

Reviews (sometimes called Peer Reviews) are typically performed on non-final drafts, when the author wants someone to look over a manuscript for significant issues: Organizational flaws, lack of worth (i.e., it's just not useful, relevant or interesting), logical shortcomings, and areas that need clarification, expansion, or pruning.

Reviewers should also point out chronic stylistic issues, such as overuse of passive voice or too many "to be" verbs (see the Writing Style Tips article).

And don't forget to point out areas that are good!

Ideally, authors and reviewers should have a conversation about the manuscript. The feedback helps the author understand whether the manuscript is on the right track, or whether it needs some kind of course correction.

Reviewers are not expected to make corrections as part of this task. Instead, authors must incorporate the feedback and make any appropriate alterations as they revise the manuscript. Indeed, authors may need to make considerable revisions after receiving the feedback -- possibly even a complete rewrite!

Authors take note: If you show what you believe to be your final draft to someone, and they find significant issues with the manuscript, your next step should not be publishing; your next step should be revision!

Revision (author's responsibility)

After considering feedback from reviews or proofreading, or after simply reading the manuscript himself, the author should make changes to improve the clarity, utility and strength of the manuscript. The effort might be anywhere between rewriting a few sentences, to rearranging paragraphs, to adding a subsection, to starting over again from scratch!

This step is where the author prunes all his unnecessary uses of "will," and replaces his "to be" verbs and unnecessary passive voice with more expressive language.

Spelling & Grammar Checking (author's responsibility)

Most word processors include powerful spelling and grammar checking commands, so authors really ought to handle this task on their own. Don't ask someone to proofread a nearly-final draft unless you already ran a spelling & grammar checker tool on the draft. Proofreaders should not be asked to catch the author's missing periods, his sentence fragments, and his misspellings of "the" as "hte."

Spelling and grammar checkers sometimes make mistakes, especially on gaming products that use many special terms and monster names, so consider each suggested correction carefully before allowing it.

Proofreading (by others; author can help too)

This is the step where people catch the sort of mistakes that computers can't catch, such as the use of a wrong (but correctly-spelled) word, like "parley" vs. "parlay," or "rogue" vs. "rouge." This is also where people check creature stat blocks for correctness, make sure situations make sense (i.e., did you really mean to include 10,000 g.p. in a belt pouch?), ensure various game/mechanical effects are described properly, and look for incorrect room numbering and other mismatches between the map & the text.

Additionally, proofreading should ensure the relevant parts of the manuscript adhere to the publisher's standards for things like:
- Order of information in creature stat blocks. Publishers ought to provide a desired "template" for stat blocks.
- Number usage; i.e., using "1" vs. "One." These guidelines are likely complex.
- Describing hit points & damage; i.e., "6 hp" vs. "6 hit points."
- And more. I plan to write another article or two covering these sorts of things in more detail.

With luck, a proofreader's feedback will contain only minor, easily-corrected issues. But sometimes the feedback will indicate that the author should make another significant revision and produce a new major draft.

For my own gaming projects (whether as an author or an editor), I maintain a cheat sheet of troublesome and commonly-misused words. When I'm in the proofreading stage, I use my word processor's Find command to search for each of the troublesome words, and ensure the correctness of every instance. I have a hard time using the various forms of "lay" & "lie" correctly, so my cheat sheet includes usage examples of about a dozen different variations of those two words. I thought I was pretty well covered as I began work on F3 Many Gates of the Gann, but my awesome editor found a mistake and schooled me on the use of "Lain." I didn't know that word even existed! I added that one to my cheat sheet so I can avoid the mistake next time.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

Any of these steps can (and should) be repeated until the author or publisher is pleased with the result. For example, the first peer review may lead to a major rewrite, a second review, and a revision. Then the author may reread and revise a couple times on his own, perhaps based on issues found during playtesting. After using some spelling & grammar checking tools, the author may ask a proofreader to look it over. If this reveals a couple sections to revise, those sections (only) would need another pass from spelling & grammar checking tools, plus another proofread. And after one last proofread that aligns the manuscript to the appropriate standardization & consistency guidelines, the manuscript would finally be ready for layout!


Editing is not just looking for spelling mistakes. Authors that only want typos corrected are doing a disservice to their manuscript. Editors that provide less help than a computer's spelling checker are doing a disservice to the author. Yes, a complete review, revision and proofreading cycle takes a good bit of effort, but your manuscript will thank you for it!

For more good editing insights, check out these posts on the Gothridge Manor blog:

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Publishing #2: Writing Style Tips

If you're like me, evocative writing doesn't exactly flow effortlessly from your mind onto the page; evocative writing requires time and thoughtful revision. Sure, you can probably produce clear & competent text, but if you're trying to publish your manuscript as a labor of love (because big bags of cash aren't waiting for us at the end of a self-publishing rainbow), why settle for mere competence? Go the extra mile and make your language great!

Here are a few pointers on how to achieve powerful writing, with an eye toward pitfalls common to modules, supplements and rulebooks:

Limit the use of passive voice

Passive voice is a sentence structure that puts the recipient of the action before the person or object performing the action. Example: "The handle was cranked by the monkey." Sometimes passive voice even omits the person or object performing the action, as in, "The handle was cranked."

Although passive voice serves as a useful tool in certain situations, many people overuse it and fall into a habit of painting incomplete or disjointed pictures with their words. Passive voice is also less concise than its opposite (active voice). For these reasons, use passive voice only when necessary. As you revise, look for places where you can switch to active voice without the eroding the utility & clarity of your descriptions.

So to revise the earlier example of passive voice into active voice, you might end up with: "The monkey cranked the handle."

For more detail on passive voice vs. active voice, and when it's best to use one over the other, check out the following articles. But keep in mind that game modules, supplements and rulebooks are akin to technical manuals, and therefore can benefit from passive voice more frequently than narrative prose.

Limit the use of "is," "are," and other "to be" verbs

This is best shown with an example. Which of the following sounds most evocative?

1) "Three goblins are in this room. They are eating from ceramic bowl of gruel that is between them all."
2) "Three goblins kneel near a ceramic bowl of gruel, hungrily consuming their meal."

Clearly the verbs in the second sentence paint a more vivid picture. By making efforts to replace "to be" will more powerful verbs, you force yourself to think more visually, which naturally draws out other bits of detail from your imagination. You end up with a double win for surprisingly little effort.

For more information about avoiding "to be" verbs, check out the following article:

Avoid "seems" and "appears"

Those two words are frequently used in gaming products as stunt doubles for "to be" verbs, and they're just as bland. You don't really need them when describing things from a PC's perspective; simply describe what "seems" to be as though it's actual fact. From the point of view of a player-DM exchange, perception is reality, and vice-versa.

Instead of, "the door seems solid," use something like, "the door holds well against the strongest shove."

And instead of, "you search, and the hallway appears safe," use something like, "you search, but gain no new information about the hallway."

Avoid the word "will"

When describing triggerable actions, "will" only functions as a space-waster. That is, you should generally prefer present tense over future tense. For example, "Pulling the lever will raise the portcullis, which will in turn alert the nearby bugbears," can be improved by simply removing the two "wills": "Pulling the lever raises the portcullis, which in turn alerts the nearby bugbears."

As another example, "The carrion crawler will attack anyone who approaches the debris," is better as, "The carrion crawler attacks anyone who approaches the debris."

Go through your whole manuscript, looking for "will," and its various contraction forms ("he'll," "they'll," etc.); I bet you can safely remove 90% of them.

Avoid explicit room emptiness

Too many modules begin room descriptions with phrases like, "This room is empty, except for (some stuff)," or, "There is nothing here other than (some stuff)." Worse, modules occasionally contradict themselves about emptiness: "This mound is empty. There is a broken sarcophagus here decorated in bas relief …" (From Barrowmaze, p. 10 – Greg, sorry for picking on you.)

Explicit emptiness wastes the reader's time. Only describe notable emptiness, such as a single empty chamber within an otherwise cluttered and overfull dungeon. If a particular emptiness begs for explicit mention despite the presence of a small number of objects, use phrases like, "A single terra cotta urn stands alone near the north wall," or, "A solitary dwarf prisoner lies on the floor, overshadowed by the vastness of the chamber."

As an adjunct, don't write keyed descriptions for completely featureless and empty rooms. Empty rooms in a module indeed serve a useful purpose; by all means, please include empty rooms on your maps! But don't give them room numbers, and don't waste words on a description that doesn't describe anything.

Don't assume the party takes all the actions

Avoid phrases that assume "the party" or "the PCs" are the ones acting in the environment: "If the party opens the chest, (bad stuff happens)," or "The trolls pursue any fleeing PCs to the entrance of the dungeon." Other dungeon dwellers (NPCs, other monsters) may open that chest or interact with those trolls, so the text ought to allow for it. Good revisions might be, "Opening the chest causes (some bad stuff)," and "The trolls pursue anyone they fight, but not beyond the entrance of the dungeon."

Eliminate pointless conditionals

"There are five saddles that can be used for flight-fungi, if the characters think of using them as flying mounts." (Demonspore, p. 56)

Wh–huh?! As written, those saddles only exist if the characters think of using them in the particular way!

More commonly, this pitfall catches writers describing the contents of chests: "If searched, the chest contains 300 gp and a potion of healing." No! This is not Schrödinger's chest! The chest contains 300 gp and the potion whether or not it's searched, so drop the "if (blah)" part of those kinds of descriptions.

Limit the description of former purposes

Avoid excessive exposition about former uses of rooms & objects, especially when the former use is no longer relevant, or impossible to discern. If the particular facts are of little/no benefit, they just waste space.

If a former purpose is important, try to imply it via trappings or other detail, without explicitly stating it. Another way to indicate a former purpose is by incorporating it into the room/area title. Good room/area titles are hard to come up with, and this technique can help you with some of that hurdle. But don't make this your default technique; unique, evocative room/area titles are generally better than always naming a room for its former purpose.


When used appropriately, these guidelines foster powerful language, and generally also reduce word count. Conciseness is important for the obvious reason: Speedy comprehension. Less obviously, conciseness reduces page count (which directly affects printing cost & final cost to the buyer and/or profit for the publisher) and simplifies the layout process. By taking the time to generate an improved linguistic product, you indirectly improve the eventual visual display of the product! More on that in a future article...

The next article covers Editing.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Publishing #1: Introduction and Order of Tasks

Producing modules and rulebooks requires a diverse skill set. The process begins with creative writing, then quickly moves into revising, editing, layout, art orders, illustration & map rendering, graphic design, communication with print houses, prepping print-ready files, uploading, order fulfillment, and more. Phew! Fumbling a couple of those parts can hamstring a great manuscript, and reduce it to a mediocre, hard-to-use product. Most of us have had practice with the writing end of the process, but gaining expertise in the rest of the steps usually requires plenty of trial & error.

This series of articles aims to impart a bit of expertise in a broad range of publishing steps, so you don't have to learn everything the hard way. I have outlines for future articles covering editing, layout, and working with artists, plus some notes on map design and working with local print houses. Please let me know if there's anything else you'd like to see covered.

Disclaimer: I don't have formal training in most of these publishing tasks; I gained most of this experience while producing a handful of modules, plus a few other personal, non-gaming items. There are multiple ways to handle most of the tasks, so don't take these articles as gospel. Feel free to share any alternative methods or ideas in the comments.

Part 1: A Publisher's Order of Tasks

Because of the prevalence of easy-to-use word processing & layout tools, new publishers can get a little bit ahead of themselves in the production steps. Fostered by exuberance, publishers sometimes jump too early into the art commissioning and layout processes, and either end up with a less-than-ideal result, or spend time and money redoing some of the steps. It happened to me when I published F1 The Fane of Poisoned Prophecies; because of my stumbles, I now know an ideal order for handling the major parts of publishing:

General Order of Tasks

1) Write the manuscript. Get all the way to the final draft. A draft isn't really final if you're expecting to make changes based on playtesting.
2) Edit
3) Layout
4) Commission Illustrations
5) Final assembly (put the illustrations into the spaces reserved during layout)

To elaborate...

Don't do layout until after the manuscript is absolutely finished and edited. The best layout decisions depend on knowing exactly how much space is taken up by various sections of text. If you're still changing text, you can't know the exact size of that block of text. (But it's okay to do experimental layouts, to get a feel for the visual of how the finished pages might look, such as to help choose fonts, spacing, sidebars, etc.)

Don't commission illustrations until after layout is finished. In addition to helping the reader visualize the text, illustrations serve a subtle secondary purpose of filling up precise amounts of space. This allows the surrounding text to break nicely, with even tops & bottoms of columns, and with strongly-related pieces of text together on the same column/page/spread.

Later articles will give more justification for both of those keys.

The next article covers Writing Style Tips.